In his “Naturalis historia” Roman polymath Pliny the Elder tells the story of Zeuxis, one of the first painters to have their name set down in history. Legend has it that he painted grapes so lifelike that birds tried to peck at them. In the tale, Pliny defines an expectation of art that would shape its development for centuries: mimesis. The earliest examples of a type of artistic representation that would take this aspiration to the extreme – the trompe-l'œil – were found in ancient Pompeii. One of the first still lifes in art history, Jacopo de’ Barbari’s “Still life with Partridge and Gauntlets” (1504), is also a trompe-l'œil.
Rondinone refers explicitly to the historical genre of still life. This reference is already implied in the title of his loosely connected series “still.lifes”. Appearances can be deceiving, however. The seven pears, six pine cones and plaster head are actually weighty objects cast in bronze and lead. The series also includes a number of other subjects, for example a four-part assemblage of Styrofoam pieces, also made of bronze and lead, that weighs over 450 kilos. Other types of fruits – walnuts, potatoes, lemons and oranges –also feature among the “still.lifes”.
The objects are characterised by their conceptual isolation, created by the cavity that occurs when casting bronze being filled with lead. Isolation and loneliness are themes running throughout Rondinone’s work, perhaps most obviously in his passive clowns, and in the deserted landscapes he has been painting since the early 1990s. The isolation, however, does not have negative connotations. Rather, it can be interpreted as the artist’s retreat from society and all its restraints.
Ephemeral objects – the typical stock of still lifes, a genre that serves as a constant reminder of transience – are imitated and cast in a material that has always been used in the arts to symbolize the opposite, namely the eternal. “Like in Ovid, all artists stand on the shoulders of those that came before them and so contemporary art is based upon the art that already exists and every new piece of art contains in one way or another everything previous. Ugo Rondinone advocates the idea that every new work ought to comprise the whole of art history and following this assumption, something new can be added to the already existing”, writes Madeleine Schuppli commenting on Rondinone’s work.
And indeed, the optical illusion turns out to merely be the surface. The precise, mathematical arrangement of the objects contradicts their illusory appearance – in nature, pine cones would never be arranged in a triangle or pears in a line. Rondinone therefore takes both the dichotomies between the ephemeral and the eternal, and the dichotomies between nature and the constructed to the point of absurdity.
(English tranlation: Mandana Taban)
Madeleine Schuppli, Die Nacht aus Blei [The Night of Lead], in: exhibition catalogue. “Ugo Rondinone. Die Nacht aus Blei”, MUSAC Leon, Aargauer Kunsthaus Aarau, German text from p. 360-364.